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losing it at the movies: shampoo (hal ashby, 1975)

The sixth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Kael wrote of Shampoo:

This sex roundelay is set in a period as clearly defined as the jazz age—the time of the Beatles and miniskirts and strobe lights. When George (Warren Beatty), the hairdresser hero, asks his former girlfriend, Jackie (Julie Christie), “Want me to do your hair?”, it’s his love lyric. When George gets his hands in a woman’s hair, it’s practically sex, and sensuous, tender sex—not what his Beverly Hills customers are used to.... The script by Robert Towne, with the collaboration of Beatty (who also produced), isn’t about the bondage of romantic pursuit—it’s about the bondage of the universal itch among a group primed to scratch.... The director, Hal Ashby, has the deftness to keep us conscious of the whirring pleasures of the carnal-farce structure and yet to give it free play. This was the most virtuoso example of sophisticated, kaleidoscopic farce that American moviemakers had yet come up with; frivolous and funny, it carries a sense of heedless activity, of a craze of dissatisfaction.

Once, in a class I taught at Cal, I assigned the novel Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran. I had read it a few years earlier and liked it quite a lot, and thought it would be a good way to diversify the reading lists. When I reread the book as I prepared for the course, I found I still liked it, but ... well, it's not that I had forgotten how much sex was in the book, but I hadn't considered how the graphic descriptions of Fire Island might affect my young students. I worried that those students, who grew up in a post-AIDS world, might have a negative take on the gay sex if they didn't put it in the context of the pre-AIDS 1970s. My "solution" was to also assign Shampoo. The idea was that the film would show that everyone was fucking around in the 1970s, not just gay people. Looking back, I'm glad I assigned both novel and movie, but I'm not sure what I think about the rationale I used.

In any event, yes, there is a lot of fucking in Shampoo, which is, as Kael described it, a "sex roundelay". Jack Warden's rich businessman, Lester, is thrice cuckolded by George: the hairdresser has sex with Lester's wife, Lester's mistress, and Lester's daughter. George has something resembling a code ... when accused of using sex like a gigolo for financial gain, he's hurt ... "I don't fuck anybody for money. I do it for the fun." And in the film's most famous dialogue, George says ... well, this is an odd way to show it, but I came across this video and I can't resist showing it here. Amy Adams, Greta Gerwig, and Michelle Williams doing a faux-tryout for the part of George where they read his famous confession:

Lee Grant won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this movie. The film is full of Oscar winners: Hal Ashby, Robert Towne, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Tony Bill, and later, Warren Beatty. It was Carrie Fisher's first movie (perhaps appropriately, given how the film goes, her most memorable line is "You wanna fuck?"). László Kovács was the director of photography.

Shampoo got decent enough reviews. It was a success at the box office. Yet I feel like it's mostly forgotten today (I'm happy to be proven wrong). Being set in its own past (made in 1975, takes place in 1968), it looks doubly archaic now. I don't think of Shampoo as a film that resonates with the 60s. It's a bit closer to the mid-70s. It's an odd combination of ambitious and mellow ... it's somehow too laid back to be called pretentious, but the filmmakers don't do enough with the 1968 setting (more specifically, it takes place on Election Eve, 1968). I can come up with some deep-sounding analysis ... the Nixon election marked the end of the free-wheeling 60s, or something. But I never felt certain why it took place when it did. And since all of the characters ignore the election (even though two scenes near the end take place at separate election result parties), the audience is welcome to do the same (although watching Nixon on TVs in the background is scary enough). Yes, yes, the point is that these characters are so self-absorbed they don't care about stuff like elections. But that doesn't come across as a great political statement. Shampoo is a movie about George the hairdresser and his various partners. It's a bedroom farce that isn't always funny.

This may sound as if I don't like Shampoo, which isn't true ... I like it just fine. But I saw it when it came out, I've just watched it again, and if this is a classic, I'm completely out of touch (then and now). It's a good movie that hints at bigger things without reaching them, and the leads actors are gorgeous: Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant, and prettiest of all, Warren Beatty.

Here is Lee Grant accepting her Oscar. She was nominated in 1951 for her first movie. She was a regular on television for many years (I first discovered her on the nighttime soap opera Peyton Place), but didn't really establish a film career until the late-60s. She refused to testify against her husband during the HUAC hearings, and was blacklisted for more than a decade.

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